Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

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Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, and we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Released in 2020; watched by us on Sept. 16, 2020)

A psychological drama by Charlie Kaufman. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

I do not think I have ever seen anything like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” let me say that up front. 

Let me also go ahead and recommend this movie to the reader now. Go see it! “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” by director Charlie Kaufman, will most likely be remembered as the best movie to be released in this weird year, though like many modern classics I believe it will take time for it to be fully recognized as such. Describing anything else about the movie will ruin the surprise.  

To stall just a little bit more, do check out this review by fellow writer, Daniel Shaykevich — the author here had a very different interpretation of this film which the reader might find interesting. 

Now, with my obligatory spoiler warning in place, I can finally speak my mind — this is an easy contender for the weirdest movie Nitish and I had seen in our marathon so far. In fact, it might be the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen, period. The closest thing I can possibly compare “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is also an unconventional acid-trip, which is very difficult to interpret. But, that does not cover it still. You know what you are getting into immediately with “Space Odyssey” — it spends its first five or 10 minutes with no story, no dialogue, just weird noises and abstract colors, so the viewer is fully prepared for a pretentious and confusing experience. This film, on the other hand, starts off conventionally. We follow a young woman who is called different names throughout the film. She wants to break up with her boyfriend, Jake, seven weeks into their relationship, but first he takes her to meet his parents in his childhood farmhouse. Things are pretty mundane so far… I initially thought the film might get kind of boring. I was a fool.

The snow gets progressively worse, and the relationship gets increasingly tense, but that seems to be the least of what is going on. Reality itself is twisting and turning in apparently real time. I’ve already mentioned that the young woman is given different names — different identities — at random, but we also see backstories and accounts contradict, we see Jake’s parents shift back and forth from young and sharp to elderly dementia patients, characters appear in sudden cuts when they are clearly supposed to be somewhere else, moods shift with little catalyst, inner monologues get interrupted and sometimes heard, there is a random ballet interlude and even mediums start to change. Animated characters involve themselves in the last 15 minutes, and by that point I was okay with it. “Seems right,” I said, “please continue.”

I feel that another thing to potentially compare “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to is William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” But, I specifically reference the first part of that novel, told in the perspective of a mentally challenged narrator who conflates reality and fantasy, and blends different memories from different points in his life into one unintelligible mess. I hated that book with a livid passion. But, I do believe it works better here, because it mostly takes advantage of the visual medium to at least make the audience’s confusion feel more intentional. 

The movie does not get everything completely correct, I admit. There are many instances in which our characters stop to discuss relevant pieces of art, film and literature, especially in the car, and that is when the movie stops becoming a visual medium and more of a podcast – especially because the lighting is so dim that it looked like a blank, black screen. That was when strangeness just turned to dullness. Yet, in every other instance, the acting, dialogue, editing and cinematography all work together to convey this film’s crumbling sense of reality and cohesion, and it does so in increasingly interesting ways. Again, I remind the reader that there is a ballet sequence! 

I do not know what this all means, though — and I feel that every single person who sees this film enough times will come out with an entirely different interpretation. It is like an inkblot test for cinema. And the movie is certainly not interested in clearing things up. (I, for one, think this may have something to do with how society represents, and imposes their own contrasting identities, onto the modern woman, but I do not have the page space or the confidence to further justify this theory.)

And dear reader, I am usually not the type of person who applauds a movie for being difficult to interpret. On further reflection, I also think I respect this movie far more than I like it. But, I do have a hunch that there is something incredible here, as though I just viewed a piece of cinema history — whether or not this will be a good thing is, perhaps, to be determined. Either way, you’re not going to want to miss this. 

Nitish:

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an astonishingly intractable piece of art. But it is a singularly extraordinary piece of art. Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director of Netflix’s new Lynchian masterpiece, manages to stitch together a feverish series of fantasies into, if not a traditional narrative, a sort of true reflection of the agonies of a lonely life and a lonely death. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an ode to a quiet life filled with regrets and a lamentation of the waning power of fantasy to give us escape from the bitter, cold end. Watching this movie can be overwhelming, without the familiar structure of a plot to hang your hat on. But even if this film doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I think you owe it to yourself to watch it, if only so that you can try to broaden your palate. 

Without the niceties of plot or narrative to hold on to, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” lives and dies by the tone it’s able to establish and the themes it’s able to convey. Kaufman is able to maintain a consistent tone throughout the film, which is a testament to his vision as the movie uses a wide variety of different hallucination-dream-sequences to get to its point. As Mark mentioned, there’s a ballet sequence, but there’s also a weird old-timey ice cream ad, and at one point one of the main characters spends two minutes reciting the lines from a real life review of another movie, and there’s an animated pig, and a weird musical and… I hope you’re starting to get the idea. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” appears to be a story controlled by its variation, but Kaufman still manages to hold to a consistent theme. 

And what a theme to pick! Kaufman is tackling a peculiar type of isolation, the result of a life lived without purpose and with heaps of unfulfilled potential. There’s a casual cruelty to the world that Kaufman depicts. At one point, the main character tells us an anecdote about a pig that is being eaten alive by maggots, and Kaufman seems to be arguing that it is a metaphor for life. One of the most arresting sequences of the movie is a tour of the main character’s family home, but in addition to touring space, we tour time. We see the paintings in his basement, evidence of a childlike curiosity that we never see amounting to anything. We see his parents aging into dementia. We see him aging into isolation. It’s a cruel reminder of the brutality of normal life. We have people who we love, but they die. We die. And in some crucial way, we all die alone. Time marches on, unyielding to our pleading for it to halt for just a moment. As you might be able to tell from the review so far, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not the world’s most optimistic movie. 

But Kaufman offers us one way we can freeze time: fantasy. The reprieve from the ephemeral nature of reality is simply unreality. Kaufman portrays the barriers between art, life and imagination as endlessly permeable. They infect each other, “like a virus” — art defines life and life defines art. I don’t want to give too much away, because a lot of the fun of this movie is trying to piece it together, but there are a variety of ways in which Kaufman draws attention to the fact that certain characters are fictional. There’s a circular shot where footage of a character speaking is interspersed with an actress from a movie who is reading her lines. The same character then delivers a monologue on a film which is entirely ripped from a famous review of the film written in the 1970s. These aren’t just random artistic flourishes, rather they’re representations of a man trying to fill his empty life with something fantastic.

Despite the doom and gloom so far, I actually don’t think the movie is trying to argue that this endeavor to spice life up is in vain. The movie isn’t as much a rejection of the power of fantasy as it is an attempt to contextualize it, and explain when it can be used as more than escapism. Indeed, the ending of the movie (where I think we reach a sort of understanding of Kaufman’s point) is still told through heavy use of fantastic elements. But whereas the earlier components of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” seem forced into the lead’s life, it feels like the surreal is an extension of the lead in the movie’s final moments. I think the film is arguing that fantasy is most powerful and most profound when it’s supplementary instead of revisionist. 

This movie is primarily about tone, mood and themes, and it is far more concerned with conveying these than it is with a firm idea of what’s real and what isn’t. But this movie apparently has an actual plot and structure, features which actually make a ton of sense in hindsight. I wouldn’t stress it if you didn’t get it though — I didn’t, and I still found my viewing experience immensely valuable. 

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a surrealist piece of art that has lots of profound and deeply emotional points to make. It’s a masterpiece, although it’s a very weird one. I recommend it highly. 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan ‘at’ nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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